Susan Akkad (TFS ‘81) has been honing her skill for finding important connections between unrelated topics since adolescence. Now, as Senior VP for Estée Lauder’s Local and Cultural Platforms and Corporate Innovation, Akkad uses her expertise to create a more just and inclusive world where all people can be seen as beautiful. Innovation is a hybrid discipline – a mix of strategy, marketing, and product development – and it requires intellectual creativity, flexibility, and tenacity to succeed.
Akkad credits Tandem for nurturing that holistic, interdisciplinary perspective of looking at the world and solving problems. “Having that holistic view is everything for innovation because the job is to connect the dots that other people haven’t connected.”
However, Akkad didn’t always have nurturing and supportive education. “Tandem was sort of a godsend for me – before I went to Tandem, I told my parents I was quitting school. I had a horrible public high school experience and stopped going to school for three months. My parents considered homeschooling but they were both UVA professors, working full time.”
Akkad’s parents also had a strong philosophical commitment to public schools. “They felt like they should be role modeling public schools because what happens when all the parents who have interest take their kids out of public schools is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – so it was a really big deal for them to take me out of public school.”
But Akkad’s parents knew many of the families who sent their kids to Tandem and they had shared values and were “fighting the good fight on social and racial justice issues together,” Akkad explained. So Akkad joined Tandem in 10th grade – at the time, Tandem was unaccredited and there were only 81 people in the entire school (8th-12th). But these potential drawbacks ended up being additional blessings for Akkad and her classmates.
“We all understood the pros and cons of not being accredited,” Akkad explained, “but our teachers didn’t need to have a Masters in education, so they were usually PhD students from UVA. For instance, my English teacher in 11th & 12th grade is now a department chair at Dickinson – so we had amazing teachers.”
“I remember studying the post Russian revolutionary time period at the same time we were reading Babette, at the same time we were looking at outsider art – it was all coming together. So then when I went to Harvard, I took this ‘literature of the outsider’ course and was like, “I already read most of this stuff in 11th grade...”
Graduating from Harvard with a degree in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Akkad did not expect to find herself in the business world. But her innovative drive and creative mind made her the perfect leader for her multicultural position at Estée Lauder. “Tandem’s interdisciplinary style of teaching continues to really serve me well in my work because things are not compartmentalized.”
“I’ve been at my company 23 years and I’ve been running the Skin of Color Center of Expertise since 2008. We are now expanding into Ageless Beauty which I am incredibly excited about because I think it is such a stereotyped, misunderstood, poorly served, age cohort for women 45+ and honestly our industry has contributed to that so I think it’s our responsibility to unpack and change it. And no, we do not cure cancer with lipstick, but giving people a sense of agency and control while also giving them a sense of joy and pleasure – that matters.”
Akkad’s advice to current students is not to stress over what’s the right subject to study or major in, instead, focus on mastering the ability to learn. “The study of human beings and culture has ended up being the most valuable thing I could have done because I am basically in the beauty anthropology business.”
Akkad is expanding her leadership and impact to include Ageless Innovation: Center for Expertise (“Ageless Beauty” for short). To learn more about Susan Akkad’s innovative marketing diplomacy at Estée Lauder, you can follow her